Indiana State University Newsroom

‘Immortal' woman is topic of next University Speakers Series event

October 7, 2013

Family members of the "immortal" Henrietta Lacks will speak at Indiana State University Oct. 14 as part of the 2013-14 University Speakers Series.

Veronica Spencer and Shirley Lacks will explore the collision between ethics and medicine that ensued when cancer patient Henrietta Lacks' cells were taken for use in scientific research. Known as immortal cells, the cells can be divided indefinitely, leading to the label "immortal."

Although taken from Lacks without her knowledge shortly before she died, the "HeLa cells" - as they were dubbed - became vital to developing the polio vaccine, studying cancer, analyzing the effects of the atomic bomb and advancing in vitro fertilization and gene mapping.

The Lacks Family will enlighten the audience about the woman behind the cells, a poor tobacco farmer from rural Virginia who moved to Baltimore County, Md. after giving birth to the first two of her five children and marrying the children's father. The speakers will also discuss ethical issues surrounding the muddled history of human experimentation and informed consent. Henrietta's cells were taken in 1951, when experimentation on African Americans was not closely monitored and informed consent was a luxury, not a right. In the 1970s, scientists performed tests on her children, without their consent or a basic understanding of the process.

Lacks' life and scientific impact was introduced to the world in Rebecca Skloot's book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."The ISU Speakers Series presentation by Veronica Spencer, Lack's great-granddaughter, and Shirley Lacks, Henrietta Lack's daughter-in-law, is scheduled for 7 p.m. in Tilson Auditorium. The speakers will take a deeper look at the blurry lines of ethics and human experimentation and the commercialization of human tissue, while also celebrating the life of the woman behind one of the most talked-about marvels of modern medicine. The program is free.

More information about the University Speakers Series at Indiana State is available at or by calling 812-237-3737.

Photo: - Veronica Spencer

Photo: - Shirley Lacks.